Did Southwest Airlines Mechanics “Repair” Their Way to a New Contract?

It appears that Southwest Airlines has a new contract with their mechanics union after years of negotiating.  This has been the ugliest battle between unions and management that I can recall in Southwest Airlines’ history.  Southwest Airlines ended up having to cancel dozens of flights per day and inconvenience thousands of passengers at the same time mechanics appeared to drastically increase the number of necessary repairs.  With a dozen or more planes out of service each day, matters got even worse as the crisis around the Boeing 737 MAX ultimately lead to the grounding of that fleet.  Was it the confluence of those two events, or did the mechanics finally wear down management?

Good Question

We’ll probably never know the real answer.  The contract terms as described by the Dallas Morning News are definitely an improvement for mechanics over previous deals:

The headline numbers are eye-popping: Mechanics would get a 20 percent raise, $160 million in back pay and annual raises of 3 percent through 2023.

“In dollars and cents, we’re going to be made whole for the last 6 1/2 years, and that’s a major victory,” Oestreich said in a phone interview. “Our members were determined to not reward the company for dragging this out.”

Last June, negotiators agreed to raises of just under 15 percent and $91 million in back pay. But the rank and file rejected that proposal “overwhelmingly,” the union said. And the bargaining committee refused to endorse it — with many leaders campaigning for its defeat.

It’s important to note that the deal hasn’t been ratified by mechanics yet, so this isn’t a done deal.  But, both sides seem to be leaning in here, which didn’t seem to be the case with the previous deal.  The current deal is better than the previous one.  However, it also covers a longer period of time that the employees didn’t have raises.  It also includes a key clause that would allow management to outsource more repair work, including to contractors outside the US.

On its face, it doesn’t seem the new offer is quite so lopsided that it was a reaction by management to the alleged tactics by some mechanics to cause enough havoc to force the airline into a deal.  20 years ago, American Airlines sued their pilots union over a unified job action that caused the airline to cancel thousands of flights.  They won a fairly large judgment, though the airline has dealt with unhappy unions for much of the last 20 years.  So, there’s precedence for things to get worse at Southwest.

The Bottom Line

Southwest’s 737 MAX fleet is still on the ground.  That makes it a bit hard to tell how well the operation is running at the moment. It seems like the repair issues have quieted down a bit.  Will that be the case if the union and management don’t come to agreement on a new deal.  It pains me to think that a union can exert leverage in the way it appears Southwest’s mechanics union did here.  Their battle is with management, yet customers are the ones who ultimately end up taking a beating.

I can understand it must be incredibly frustrating to work without a raise or a new contract for as long as these employees have.  I just wonder if these employees have really stopped to think about the ramifications of their actions. They need look only as far as across town to see how a toxic relationship between management and unions can leave a lasting negative impression on the culture of an airline.

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3 Comments

  1. Excellent analysis.
    I am in the Dallas area, and have regular interaction with the local average “boots on the ground” at SWA, and they seemed mostly bewildered by the mechanics behavior, which seems to clearly emanate from union controlled regions.
    Makes me wonder if the “benevolent paternalism” of Kelleher will be beaten down as SWA expands into areas in which hostile labor-management relationships are the standard.

    1. The tactics of the Mechanics Union mirror some of the efforts waged against Eastern Airlines decades ago. The union has really tried to grind down Southwest management for the simple reason that the planes have to be fixed or they do not fly. Seems simple, but it leaves management in a box with little wiggle room.
      The outsource clause mentioned above could be a breaking point , should union hardliners convince rank and file members to turn down this agreement. The outsourcing issue was mentioned in a New York Times story about a letter sent by the FAA to both parties warning that slowdowns and other tactics that forced 100 flights to be cancelled might cause the effectiveness of Southwest’s safety program to be questioned.
      A long-term question would be how much Southwest might have to raise fares to cover the contract terms.

  2. Seems fair to me that Southwest management make mechanics whole. Management is no longer Kelleher and they are wearing out their welcome. I don’t think the unions have any fault and only see the management as being to blame for creating the situation that appears to have forced a culture of extreme safety. If management is cutting corners, the last thing you want is a plane needing overdue maintenance. When management puts the screws to the workers, and doesn’t deal in good faith, they should expect the workers to play exactly by the rules. Look at what management has done to American and United… funny they have also had/have the same management. Management should not look to them in how to run an airline. Value your workers and they will back you when times are tough but screw them and you get the consequences however they play out.

    Management should think through their loyalty to stockholders at the expense of their workers. Their workers made the airline and management doesn’t need to be making good on keeping the mechanics whole. Perhaps if management is so concerned about the bottom line they can give up their salary to please the stockholders.

    Most people that fly Southwest understand we are all in this together. And while I might be inconvenienced, none of us like to see management taking advantage of its workers because it can – especially when this has never been the culture. Management needs to learn the golden rule.

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